Emile Griffith, the first gay world champion boxer, fighting Brian Curvis
Due in part to the reductiveness of historical narrative -which asks in exchange for a comprehensible story that we discard the limitless complexity of individuals’ lives- we tend not to understand that the past had the same rich diversity of human experience as the present. Pat ideas about the nature of generations preceeding ours are gospel; for every decade, an animating quality is ascribed to societies no poorer than our own in vitality, diversity, confusion: we think of the 1950s, for example, as a time of conformity and repression, and the pop-cultural treatments which represent it are constructed according to those notions.
But wherever we encounter history, we thrill and despair at the realization that the past was as dynamic and varied as the present, and that time has a repetitive quality as a result: while we believe that our time is different from others, almost everything we take as distinctive has its antecedents, its parallels, its previous incarnations.
Reading James Ellroy’s lunatic autobiography of his youth, marked by his mother’s brutal, unsolved murder and his own bizarre reaction to it, provides an excellent reminder of this. Replete with references to the hideous crimes, desperate delusions, twisted and weird characters, neurotic and deviant behavior, and general alienation that existed at the margins of 1950s boomtown California society, My Dark Places problematizes any easy idea of what America once was.
It also points to innumerable cultural watersheds that turned out not to be watersheds at all: definitional moments that might have been in our popular memory of the time but somehow are not. For my part, I’d never heard -for example- of Emile Griffith.
Griffith was an extremely successful boxer, a world champion whose career is comparable to any legend of the sport, and he was also gay. His homosexuality was not precisely a secret, although newspapers didn’t report it and it wasn’t discussed. Within the boxing world, however, it was well-known enough that Griffith’s great rival Benny Paret taunted him before matches with homophobic slurs.
In their third match, in 1962, Griffith beat Paret to death. The fight -televised on NBC- was a scandal, prompting networks to cease airing bouts for a decade and plunging Griffith into a nightmare of guilt and depression that colored the rest of his life.
Griffith’s story -told well, if at points mawkishly, in this fascinating essay- is an amazing one for innumerable reasons, not least his insistence later in life that his sexuality ought not be reduced:
I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.
Griffith was beaten nearly to death leaving a gay bar in 1992, and now suffers from pugilistic dementia. The sad, strange story of his sexuality in a violent sport touches on many of the great themes of 20th century America: the press, the world of sport, the ideas of masculinity, the way small cultures can vary in tolerance -in surprising ways- from the culture at large, the wages of violence, and the experience of sexual and racial minorities in the US.
Echoing the epitaph of gay Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich, Griffith lamented that while many -including Paret’s son- could forgive him for killing a man, fewer could forgive him for loving one. My Dark Places is filled with examples of how love and violence shift and refract through one another -the rage of love turned inward- and is at once the most appallingly honest autobiography of which I’m aware and an incredible dispatch from an era long gone and still present, when a world champion could be sexually different and be both accepted and punished for it, an ambiguous time more like our own than one might want to admit.
Note: the excellent DH makes the point that in order not to engage in the reductive labelling I critique, I ought not refer to Griffith as “gay”; I do so mainly because the consensus among writers seems to be that he was in fact gay but remains partly closeted. But it is up to the individual, not to the crowd, to make such determinations, so while I deferred to convention here I did so in violation of my own point and that should be noted.